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Travel Advisory: Stories of Mexico

A Mexico book by David Lida

Reviewed by Hugh Robertson

For some years now, those of us norteamericanos who live in Mexico and sometimes love it, have read with some rueful cynicism the reports of assorted writers who've dipped into Mexico. And missed. It wasn't that we disapproved; we were mildly disappointed. Somehow, although they captured the color and often the taste, saw the majesty of our mountains and the grace of palms, they never quite managed to find the Mexico that traps us, infuriates us, makes us laugh at our gringo selves and eventually defeats us and sends us back home fed up and not quite sure what went wrong.

Now, suddenly, there's a writer who's found our Mexico, sketched it in a series of short story scenes and portraits and shrewdly dared to call it "Travel Advisory." Even after you've read David Lida's dark "Advisory" and realized this is no Baedeker's or Carl Franz or even "Distant Neighbors," you're not quite sure why this disturbing collection of just 10 stories in 200 pages needs to be read by anyone who'd like to truly understand -- and maybe forgive -- the Mexico that's cruelly captured us.

The jacket illustration may hint at an answer. It's not bold art or striking Mexican design. It's unattractive and seemingly unrelated. It's a photo, a shot of four men, distorted, just on the edge of focus, one of the men fuzzily upside down and standing on his hands. And then it occurs to you that every other "travel" book you've seen on Mexico includes pictures of Mexico, bold pictures, bright pictures, beautiful, quaint, colorful pictures. They're picture postcard pictures, Kodak pictures, color-corrected, cropped, perfect. They're selling Mexico.

Not the "pictures" you get from David Lida. This "nice Jewish boy from New York," with his sharp eye and perceptive ear, gives you no public relations pictures, no glossy images.

He's not popping his pictures with a tourist's Brownie or a Japanese 12-shot disposable, not even with a high-end SLR. Lida's travel "pictures" seem almost hipshot with one of the new digital cameras, then downloaded into his very personal computer and there manipulated and morphed to reflect his private perception of a Mexico most travelers won't ever see. He's not selling Mexico; he's showing you the Mexico he once lived in and left.

And you begin to realize this slim volume is no tour guide. It's truly an "advisory," the name borrowed from those occasional State Department documents warning U. S. citizens to sidestep countries -- usually Third World and Midddle Eastern -- which might pose dangers to unwary Americans. That's what Lida is offering here.

Each image Lida presents in print is a product of a kind of verbal version of Adobe Photoshop 5.0. Each of his stories zooms in, enhances, tilts, tints, trims. He sharpens lines, alters focus, erases blemishes, enlarges others. He captures color and bright sunlight and Mexico's sometimes surprising heat. Wonderfully well, but only briefly. Because he's presenting a darker side, concentrating on crime and curruption and degradation. His word pictures are a kind of personal pornagraphy, dirty pictures of violent rape and robbery, ruthless seduction, even pederasty on Acapulco's golden streets.

Oh, he writes well enough. You can see and feel and almost smell most of the scenes he sketches and if you've lived a while in Mexico you find yourself nodding in agreement, recognizing places, thinking "been there, done that." But you haven't been where David Lida's people have been or done the things they do. These stories, of course, are fiction. I don't have to believe them. And I don't really want to. His Mexicans are uncharacteristically cruel, his Gringos stereotypically stupid.

That's what makes Lida suspect. I don't think he knows Mexico as well as he claims. His unplotted stories sound like they're lifted from police reports (in any big city). He does set them in place with superb and sensual description and spices them with Mexicano gutter words we've all seen scrawled on walls. Then he ends them cruelly, bluntly. coldly and without compassion, His characters all are losers.

Lida's Mexico is not my Mexico. I kept thinking as I finished each story I read that it's a shame David Lida very likely is too young ever to have seen Walt Disney's gentle Bambi in that beloved cartoon tale. Had he, he might have remembered the advice of Thumper's rabbit mother, "If you can't say somethin' nice, don't say nuthin' at all."

Book Cover  - Link to AmazonAvailable from Amazon Books:Hard Cover

Published or Updated on: July 1, 2000 by Hugh Robertson © 2000
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